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Feb 15, 2016

American Student Drowns in the Sibun River

Tomari Jackson

In the west, tragedy struck a visiting group of students. A fourteen year old North Cobb High School in Atlanta, Georgia was among thirty-two students who arrived in Belize on Saturday morning and headed west to the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary where they were to spend five days as part of a missionary program. Their first activity was a swim in the Sibun River which runs behind the sanctuary. Tomari Elijah Jackson, however, could not be accounted for during a headcount after swimming activities concluded. The body of Jackson, the only son of a single mother, was retrieved from the river on Sunday morning. His drowning cast a dark cloud and the trip was cut short. News Five’s Duane Moody reports. 


Matthew Miller, Managing Director, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

“It was completely unexpected; it’s still a mystery to all the adults who were supervising the group, what could have happened. We just don’t know.”


Duane Moody, Reporting
Fourteen year old Tomari Elijah Jackson is a student of North Cobb High School in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A. On his first trip to Belize along with thirty-one other classmates and colleagues, the unthinkable would happen. As the group went swimming in the Sibun River some six miles off the George Price Highway behind Tiger Sandy Bay, Tomari—despite being supervised while swimming with his colleagues—went under water and didn’t surface.


Matthew Miller

“This is the first incident that we’ve had like this where someone has lost their life in the course of a program. The group from North Cobb High School from Georgia had arrived earlier in the day. We brought them to Monkey Bay from the International Airport. We oriented them to the site; we ran through the blue print of what we were going to do for the day, having lunch, moving into our accommodations and then taking a swim in the Sibun. So after all of the orientation, lunch and settling in, changing clothes…we drove to Tiger Sandy Bay right to the Sibun River bank where we often time swim. It’s a popular canoe takeout location; local people go there to fish; it’s a known bathing spot.”


For over twenty years, U.S. Christian Missions and student study groups of different ages have been traveling to Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Belize to experience the environment and participate in education programs. On Saturday, a mission from Atlanta had just arrived in Belize and hours later one of the visiting missionaries drowned.


Matthew Miller

“We briefed the group on the area, where their boundaries; we had nine chaperones—three licensed tour guides. We stationed them at the right places: below the swimming hole, above the swimming hole and on the sandbar where everyone disrobed to their bathing suits to go in the water. It’s a shallow area, there is not a strong current; it’s even a little back eddy where there is calm water. Tomari was swimming with his Go Pro camera, his swimming goggles, his grey shirt and his blue shorts—going under and coming up.”


As the group was about to return, a headcount would indicate that Tomari was missing. The police were soon after called in and multiple searches were conducted on the river. Along with assistance from the U.S. Embassy, the Coast Guard and police, just after two a.m. on Sunday, the body of Tomari was retrieved from the river.


Juanito Cocom

Insp. Juanito Cocom, O.C., Ladyville Police

“A search was immediately initiated and the body was eventually discovered by two local divers in the Sibun River. With the assistance of the Coastguard personnel, the body was retrieved and transported to the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital.”


Matthew Miller

“When we couldn’t him at the bathing spot, we launched in pairs groups of people to search on the farms roads that gave us access to the river. We began posting people in the river to go diving down to look for him. We stationed somebody three hundred yards downstream where there is a small wooden bridge crossing to stay there in case he had swam downstream out of sight. Then myself got in the river and swam that same three hundred yards looking for him.”


Matthew Miller

The parents of the other students, concerned about the mental and emotional state of the group, wanted the mission to return to Atlanta. The trip was cut short and with the assistance from the U.S. Embassy and American Airlines, the students and faculty left the country this morning. But prior to their departure, pastors were brought in the counsel those who have been traumatized by the incident.


Matthew Miller

“Remarkably, the students handled themselves very maturely. We had pastors from four or five congregations visit us on Sunday for prayers and counseling for those students who were interested. I think it was harder on the group leaders than the students; they were the ones that were entrusted by the parents of these students to take care of their child and now they are going back without one. So they are deeply devastated by the incident.”


Tomari was to celebrate his fifteen birthday today. Duane Moody for News Five.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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